Downhill from Here

Ian Jack

  • When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett
    Faber, 576 pp, £20.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 22136 3

The fashion is relatively recent for slicing up history into ten-year periods, each of them crudely flavoured and differently coloured, like a tube of wine gums. Growing up in Britain in the 1950s I never heard the past, however recent, specified by decade. There was ‘the war’ and ‘before the war’, and sometimes, when my parents were burrowing into their childhoods, ‘before the first war’. The 20th century lay stacked in broad layers of time: dark moorland where glistened an occasional white milestone marked with a year and an event. Sometimes the events were large and public. The General Strike happened in 1926 and Germany invaded Poland in 1939. But often they were small and private. In my own family, 1944 wasn’t remembered for D-Day but as ‘the summer we went along the Roman Wall on the tandem’.

When did ‘decade-ism’ – history as wine gums – start? The first decades that took a retrospective grip on the popular imagination were the 1890s and the 1920s. It may not be a coincidence that both have been characterised as fun-loving eras that chucked out staid manners and stale customs, whose social revolutionaries were libertines (Mae West) and gangsters (James Cagney). Perhaps more than any other agency, it was Hollywood that defined those decades for people too young to know them. The American experience became the way the 1920s were remembered, even though only a tiny proportion of the world’s population in 1925 drank hard liquor out of teapots in speakeasies; or danced – danced, danced, danced! – often in a cloche hat and with a long cigarette-holder pointed riskily at their partner’s crotch. It took thirty years for the 1890s to become established as ‘naughty’ or ‘gay’ – Mae West’s Belle of the Nineties came out in 1934 – but the 1920s were quicker off the mark. The Roaring Twenties, with James Cagney as its star, branded the decade only nine years after it ended. The Wall Street Crash and the ending of Prohibition, by utterly changing American life, had quickly sealed off the 1920s as history.

Subsequent decades didn’t easily offer themselves for styling. In 1970 it would have been hard to look back and stick a persuasive label on Britain in the 1930s, though adjectives such as ‘hungry’ and ‘anxious’ made excursions in book titles. The 1940s were entirely blotted out by ‘the war’, while the 1950s had still to become the caricature of pipe-smoking dads and orderly (or repressed) family life that now brings the shout, ‘Oh, just like the 1950s!’ from visitors to such English seaside resorts as Southwold and Frinton. A few years later, however, we could look into the rear-view mirror and see the 1960s, the Swinging Sixties, unquestionably the most famous ten-year stretch of world history. Yet the 1960s didn’t happen everywhere at the same time or to every generation: I’d never come across a recreational drug, for example, before I left Glasgow for London in 1970, and I’m sure my dear parents never came across any at all. But, all in all, the notion is hard to contest that the 1960s was a transformative decade for most people in the Western world who lived through it. This made it majestic in retrospect and set loose a popular, attractive way of looking at the recent past. If the 1960s had a definable character, why couldn’t the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s? These were paler and weaker wine gums to be sure, but television producers in early middle age did their best with shows in which minor celebrities recalled with well-briefed spontaneity their favourite moments on Top of the Pops or the first time they ate in an Angus Steak House and enjoyed a slice of Black Forest Gâteau.

Of these recent decades, the 1970s is the most reviled. I once had a colleague who’d been a little girl in the 1970s, and not a particularly poor one, yet she would shudder and say: ‘Oh, it was like Eastern Europe then, all stews and root vegetables and wet holidays in caravans.’ Her austere picture didn’t fit with my own memories, which are of myself becoming richer, but it remains a popular view: Britain before the fun got going. As Andy Beckett writes in his introduction, the statement ‘Above all, we don’t want to go back to the 1970s’ has been a relentless theme in British political life almost since the day the decade ended. They are the bogeyman years, regularly invoked by politicians of all parties as the nadir of postwar Britain. David Cameron (though it could just as easily have been Gordon Brown) read out the charge sheet at a Demos meeting in 2006: ‘economic decline . . . inflation, stagnation and rising unemployment . . . deteriorating industrial relations’. Nearly 30 million working days were lost to strikes in 1979, mainly during the Winter of Discontent – more than in any other year. We know what happens next in the script. The country rejects the worn-out panaceas of the Labour administration and elects Margaret Thatcher, and she, with what Cameron calls ‘huge courage and perseverance’, sets Britain on a dynamic new course towards its now tremulous destiny as financial capitalism’s leading counting house.

Thatcher is the phoenix; the 1970s, the ashes. Beckett’s method is to rake through these ashes, usually by revisiting – quite literally, as in ‘travelling to see them’ – the people and places that affected the course of the decade. The author turned ten in 1979. Some of what he discovers will come as no surprise to readers who lived through those years as half-awake adults: that, for example, environmentalism, feminism, gay rights and Rock Against Racism were for many people more important as politics than the parties led by Wilson and Callaghan, Heath and Thatcher. Sometimes he tells us just a little too much about the journey, how cloudy it was or how sunny, which mode of transport he used, what magazines he bought in W.H. Smith. But the point is well made when he writes:

British politics in the 1970s, for all the Gothic prose it usually prompts, was about moments of possibility as well as periods of entropy; about stretches of calm as well as sudden calamity. Politics was rawer and more honest – in the sense that conflicts between interests and ideologies were out in the open – than perhaps we are used to nowadays. It was also more obviously connected to everyday life – not just through the much higher turnouts at general elections, but through the disruptions wrought by strikes and other shocks, by voters’ living-room lights suddenly going out.

I back him particularly on the ‘stretches of calm’. Up against coal shortages and surging oil prices, caused respectively by a miners’ overtime ban and the Yom Kippur war, Ted Heath announced ‘emergency measures’ in a special broadcast to the nation on 13 December 1973. The result during the first two months of 1974 was a three-day working week and an organised programme of power cuts, from which Beckett takes his title. I worked on a newspaper then, but my memory of the three-day week has been reduced to two scenes. I remember sitting in my car and seeing the Tottenham Court Road suddenly plunge into darkness. I remember going with a photographer to find somebody – anybody – who was working in picturesque candlelight. Compared with my copious recollection of other and much less significant moments – the blazing summer of 1976, say – this is poor stuff, and not easily explained until you take into account the social atmosphere of the time. Even during what Beckett calls ‘sudden calamity’ – the gravest economic crisis since the Second World War – the country by recent swine-flu standards stayed remarkably calm. There were some alarms and amusing excursions: Patrick Jenkin, the energy minister, advised people to save electricity by cleaning their teeth in the dark (and then newspapers printed pictures of Jenkin’s own house ablaze with light). But the winter was mild and people coped. Output per labour hour actually increased. Workers worked harder over shorter weeks and then went home to trim the wicks of antique oil lamps and pay more attention to their children and gardens. The three television channels closed down early at 10.30 p.m., streetlights were dimmed, offices cooled their heating to 65ºF; but the world did not collapse. Trade at fishing-tackle shops and golf courses boomed. The emergency, in Beckett’s words, became ‘a sort of extended national holiday’. In 1974, after all, most people over forty could remember the blackout and much greater sacrifices made in ‘the national interest’ – a public memory which fed into Heath’s calculations when he decided to face down the miners with his Churchillian appeal on television. Reading the speech now, I can see Heath’s uncomfortable frame – Beckett tells us that an underactive thyroid made him plump and sluggish – filling the television screen: ‘We must close our ranks so that we can deal together with the difficulties which come to us, whether from within [miners] or from beyond our own shores [sheikhs]. That has been our way in the past, and it is a good way.’

Heath, Beckett says, was convinced he was battling with the NUM’s Communist wing, but ‘difficulties’ was the nearest he came to his successor’s ‘enemy within’. And of course he lost. The miners escalated their overtime ban to an all-out strike, Heath called an election that posed the question ‘Who governs Britain?’, and the electorate by a very small majority decided that the answer wasn’t Heath. The miners, meanwhile, got most of the 31 per cent pay rise they wanted through the intervention of one of those benign ‘conciliation and arbitration’ bodies, in this case the Pay Board, which were then such a feature of industrial life. Another strike two years earlier had ended when another intervention (this time by the specially summoned Wilberforce Inquiry) awarded the miners 20 per cent. That strike had featured the famous ‘Battle of Saltley Gate’, when pickets fought a long struggle with police to prevent lorries collecting coke from the Saltley depot in the West Midlands. The police had neither riot shields not truncheons (‘We’d have been bloody bollocked if we’d used truncheons,’ a retired policeman tells Beckett) and relied for crowd control on pushing and shoving. Sheer weight of numbers eventually beat them; pickets, including Arthur Scargill, had travelled long distances. Heath’s government was humiliated and inside the Tory Party the scar lasted for years. Beckett quotes Thatcher from her memoirs: ‘For me what happened at Saltley took on no less significance than it did for the left.’

So there she was like Mrs Tam O’Shanter, nursing her wrath to keep it warm, while trade unions went on increasing their membership, and organised labour (what a historic phrase that now seems, like the ‘Poor Law’) grew from strength to strength. In 1968, 43 per cent of the British workforce belonged to a union. In 1978, the figure was 54 per cent (halved to 27.4 per cent by 2008). It made sense to join one. Power within unions had migrated down the hierarchy to the shop floor – the number of shop stewards quadrupled – and the simple mechanism of industrial action not only brought material rewards, but also a kind of spiritual uplift. Raphael Samuel, quoted by Beckett, thought that ‘strikes, for those who took part in them, took on something of the character of [religious] Revivals . . . an occasion for mass conversion, a time when all things are made anew.’ Little of Samuel’s appealing notion applied to my own industry, newspapers, where workers in the press room would walk out for an increased bonus and walk back in again when they got it, which they usually did; bonuses cost less than the revenue lost when an edition failed to make the streets. Nobody imagined this was ‘responsible’ or ‘reasonable’ trade unionism – adjectives that all politicians stressed – any more than most of us understood the fear that partly explained the miners’ militancy: that their time was running out (in 1971 oil replaced coal as Britain’s chief energy source).

Trade unions became an immovable fact of everyday life; they were, as Beckett writes, at their zenith. From friends on unsympathetic newspapers I learned the term of art for the front-page formula that ran a big headline next to a mugshot (‘The man who is stopping your trains tonight!’). They called it the ‘crucifixion layout’. It implied that strikes were caused by some ranting Messiah leading ‘reasonable’ workers astray, rather than (as was usually the case) the same reasonable workers taking a self-interested decision to maximise their wages. It became obvious, however, that governments needed the assent of trade unions to succeed. Together with capital and government, they made up the wobbly three-legged throne on which Heath sat. Later, three legs became two when Harold Wilson and the trade unions’ grandest grandee, Jack Jones, reached the agreement known as the Social Contract, whereby workers agreed to moderate their wage demands so that the two-figure inflation rates could be beaten. Opinion polls decided Jones was the most powerful man in Britain. ‘Vote Jack Jones, cut out the middle man,’ the election graffiti said. Conflicts resolved over ‘beer and sandwiches’ at Downing Street became one of the clichés of the era, though Jones is said to have preferred goujons of sole. The right depicted the arrangement as trade unionists ‘holding the country to ransom’, while some on the left attacked it as a sell-out. In the view of the NUM leader, Joe Gormley: ‘Our role in society is to look after our members, not run the country.’

It seems inconceivable now that British governments would kowtow to, or at least try to persuade and seduce, organisations of workers rather than bankers and financiers (‘Vote Barclays, cut out the middle man’). But the economy was different then. Most of the heavy industry and infrastructure were publicly owned. British power stations and steel plants burned British coal. British-owned factories still made ships, cars and lorries, railway locomotives and textiles. We smoked British brands of cigarettes, drank our own Watneys, ate our own sweets. Not all of these products were flawless and often the quantities they were made in were diminishing, but they moored Britain to ways of thinking and living that were all its own. On the day Britain joined the EEC in 1973, the Daily Mirror published a survey into British attitudes towards the social changes that membership might bring. Only 18 per cent of those polled favoured all-day pub opening, only 23 per cent regular wine with meals, only 13 per cent continental breakfasts over bacon and eggs, only 5 per cent Sunday shopping. This might suggest a reasonably happy – if high-fat – contentment with the way things were. In fact, a low-energy fatalism had overcome large parts of an elite that once believed change, particularly economic change, to be both essential and possible. As Beckett notes, the idea of ‘declinism’ had nagged away in political conversation ever since anyone could remember; economic decline had been a fear even when Britain was at its most imperial. Between 1950 and 1970, when Britain’s share of the world’s manufactured exports shrank from about a quarter to about a tenth, it turned from a worrying prospect into an apparently unstoppable reality. Failing manufacturing industries were kept alive by state subsidy. Sterling crises were never far away. There was inflation on the one hand and unemployment on the other, see-sawing problems that were difficult to tackle together (if one went down, the other went up). The problem was, the people didn’t understand. Beckett quotes a conversation, recorded in a diary, between two senior civil servants in 1975. The first asks the second how he is, and the second replies: ‘Like everyone else, waiting for the collapse.’ James Callaghan, then foreign secretary, wrote in his memoirs: ‘Our place in the world is shrinking; our economic comparisons grow worse . . . Sometimes when I go to bed at night I think that if I were a young man I would emigrate.’

It was around that time that pessimism became a general condition, though the middle classes felt it most keenly. Inflation ate into savings, share dividends dwindled, a three-year slump in property prices, from 1974 to 1976, devalued homes. During the mid-1970s, according to Beckett, declinism

truly began to pervade the national consciousness. It filled doomy books . . . It became a melodramatic staple for newspapers, magazines and television programmes. It darkened the work of artists, novelists, dramatists, film-makers and pop musicians. It soured foreign commentary on Britain . . . And it shifted in tone; from the anxious to the apocalyptic.

In John Fowles’s novel Daniel Martin, published in 1977, the expatriate narrator says of his homeland: ‘England is already a thing in a museum, a dying animal in a zoo.’ Beckett pulls many other examples (Lessing, Drabble, Spark) from what he calls the ‘crisis fiction’ of the time, but crisis seems too noisy a word. What I remember is the kind of hush that comes down in a fog. We ambled onwards. Politicians became blurred silhouettes in the distance. Returned to office in 1974, Harold Wilson was one of the weariest prime ministers in history, his ‘clever eyes’ fixed from the start on early retirement rather than any vision of national salvation. In conversations with Wilson’s former colleagues, Beckett finds near universal contempt. Denis Healey says: ‘He was a terrible prime minister, actually.’ Gavyn Davies, then a Downing Street adviser, remembers him as bored and ‘slightly an absentee prime minister’. Drink got him through the day: ‘Brandy from midday till late evening, when he is slow and very slurred,’ according to the diary of Bernard Donoughue, one of his kitchen cabinet. Like Heath, Wilson was ill – ‘run-down’, as people used to say. Persistent colds, stomach pains, a racing heart, moments of forgetfulness and bewilderment: all of these attended cabinet meetings along with the scent of Courvoisier and cigars, and may well have been early warnings for the Alzheimer’s and bowel cancer that were diagnosed a few years after he quit.

One of Beckett’s best discoveries is Dr Richard Stone, whose father, Joe Stone, had been Wilson’s GP since the 1940s – a job that the junior Stone took over for the last 12 years of Wilson’s life. ‘Harold had been the master of the detail, and then he didn’t have the detail,’ Richard Stone told Beckett. ‘Heavy drinking cuts off one layer of your thinking. You lose sharpness, facts, precision. And it’s the sign of someone who’s burning out. In the 1970s, Harold knew it was downhill from here.’ Joe Stone became one of Wilson’s closest friends, and the prime minister would often be driven in his official car to Stone’s house in North London. The two men would talk for an hour or two. Stone was a good listener, a loyal keeper of confidences – he committed few details of Wilson’s ill-health to paper – and had no political axe to grind. ‘Part of an afternoon or an evening would slip by, the Finchley Road a distant, lulling drone,’ Beckett writes. ‘The prime minister’s driver would wait outside in the car. Britain’s many mid-1970s problems would await Wilson’s attention.’ The vignette, so suggestive of a scene from Smiley’s People, lacks the topics of their conversation. Beckett doesn’t speculate, but it would be odd if they didn’t include Smiley’s People themselves. Wilson firmly believed that he had enemies inside the intelligence agencies and that they wanted to bring him down. At first his colleagues thought, like Shirley Williams, that he was ‘off his trolley’ when he pointed out bumps in the ceiling and said they held listening devices. Williams remembers a conversation in the cabinet chamber:

‘That’s a bug. They’re bugging me.’

‘Really, Harold?’

‘Absolutely. They’re listening to everything I say. And they’re determined to get me out.’

The obvious explanation, that these were the paranoid delusions of a crumbling mind, needs to be revised in the light of later disclosures that sections of MI5 and the CIA had determined that Wilson was a long-serving Soviet puppet, if not actually a spy. Williams now believes that there was ‘a real attempt to try to undo him of a non-constitutional kind’. But really there was no need to supplement the exhaustion, alcohol and poor health that were already undoing him. When another sterling crisis hit Britain in 1976, Wilson’s biggest worry was that dealing with it might affect his plans for retirement.

One thing about decades it may be important to understand is that the actors and a lot of the scenery date from previous ones. They don’t arrive at the studio flat-packed and in mint condition, the common fault of historical feature films in which, say, a 1920s romance will have a 1920s house with a 1920s cocktail cabinet and a 1920s car in the drive, none of them with a speck of dust or a scratch of wear and tear. In 1976, Wilson was 60 and his successor that year as prime minister, Jim Callaghan, four years older. Even in a decade when it was still possible – in a newsroom, say – to think nothing of working next to a man who had fought in the war, the memories of both men had a noticeably sepia tone. In his last volume of memoirs, Final Term, Wilson recalled that he’d told the party in 1974 that he saw his role as being like ‘a deep-lying centre-half – I instanced Roberts of the prewar Arsenal team – concentrating on defence . . . moving upfield only for set-piece occasions (witness, as I had done, Roberts’s famous winning goal in the sixth round of the FA Cup against Huddersfield in 1927)’. Callaghan, just as nostalgic and even more socially conservative, told Bernard Donoughue that he’d been unaware of homosexuality ‘until well into adult life’. From the podium of the 1978 party conference he sang one of his favourite Victorian music-hall songs, ‘Waiting at the Church’, to suggest, like a winking uncle, that he wouldn’t be calling an autumn election. Most of his audience was baffled, though there were still men and women alive who knew he’d misattributed the song to Marie Lloyd when in fact it was Vesta Victoria’s.

The conventional wisdom now is that he should have called that election. Labour was roughly level with the Tories in the polls and the electorate in 1978 much preferred Callaghan’s personality to Thatcher’s. If she’d won, as she wrote in her memoirs, the pay revolt by public-sector workers that winter might have broken her government instead of ending Callaghan’s. Even as it was, with the unburied dead and ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ and so forth, Labour increased its vote in the general election the following May by 75,000 compared with October 1974. The Tories’ majority of 43 seats was owed mainly to defections from the Liberals, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and the National Front. Within two years Britain had fallen into its biggest recession since the 1930s and opinion polls registered Margaret Thatcher as the most unpopular prime minister since polling began. ‘General elections, like the beginnings and ends of decades,’ Beckett writes, ‘are rarely as decisive as they seem.’

Yes indeed. The truth is that the 1970s, like most decades, was a wine gum of many colours. The two years between the IMF bail-out and the collapse of the Social Contract, roughly from the autumn of 1976 to the autumn of 1978, were far sunnier than those for some time before or after. Oil from the North Sea had begun to come ashore and with it the promise of lasting prosperity. Disposable incomes and house prices rose – the latter by 50 per cent in the five years to 1980 – while unemployment and inflation fell. In a book entitled Britain: A Future That Works, the Washington Post’s London correspondent, Bernard Nossiter, was by early 1978 able to wonder if the mid-1970s ‘crisis’ had not been ‘a case of hypochondria’. Nossiter felt London to be ‘the last inhabitable great city’, full of relaxed citizens who had discovered what would now be called a happy work-life balance, as opposed to what Nossiter described as the ‘nervous intensity’ of the crowds in Paris and New York. Britons, he suggested, might be ‘the first citizens of the post-industrial age . . . choosing leisure over goods’. As Beckett points out, Nossiter was known to have soppy Anglophile tendencies; still, there was something to what he wrote. If greater equality nourishes happiness and the public good, as many have come to believe, then it should never be forgotten that in the late 1970s Britain became a more equal country than it had probably ever been and certainly than it has been since. Beckett’s book is not all out revisionism; the facts of industrial turmoil can’t be revised away. But that one fact of greater equality suggests that the received wisdom of the 1970s as Britain’s nightmare decade is little more than a politically convenient libel which suits a narrative of redemption. We must never go back to the 1970s? Perhaps we should be lucky. There are worse places, as we may shortly see.